A Wildfire Fairytale

Surrounded by storms

Surrounded by storms

I lit a sprig of incense and watched the smoke curl and tumble toward the ceiling. I took a sip of my coffee and my mind alighted on the smoke, drifting into daydreams – daydreams of wildfire. Wildland fire exists in that vibrant world of vintage Americana and floats in our collective conscience as legend and folklore, colored by stories of rough and rugged heroes, triumph and tragedy.

I sit at the tail end just beyond the stories. My practical experience has just begun. I am not a fire hardened smoke eater and I don’t have tales of daring feats or courage, but I do have a first fire and it was magical. It wasn’t a huge, scary fire; there wasn’t a long, arduous hike involved to get there; and it happened in the cool of an evening on an open desert expanse blanketed with thunderheads.

We had been patrolling a remote, rugged landscape and had just stopped on a high spot to scan the horizon. A cool, rainy breeze blew through the open windows. There were storm cells around us in every direction. The question was: which one will drop the lightning that will start a fire? We were storm watching, kind of like the crazy scientists in Twister except rather than tornadoes we were looking for smoke.

I lazily looked out the windows unconvinced we would see anything, but to my surprise it didn’t take long before brown puffs of smoke could be seen in the distance. Binoculars were passed around the engine as all of us took a look. The smoke stood out from the clouds by its coloration. As we were watching it someone came in over the radio asking about smoke on the horizon. He was driving up from the opposite direction and could also see the billowing brown column. We waited and watched.

By the time he came slipping and sliding up the muddy road the smoke was clearly visible. Everyone looked through the binos again and then dispatch came in over the radio asking our location and if we could respond. Though it was my first fire ever, it was everyone else’s first fire of the season and whoops and hollers, fist pumping and damn near jumping out of seats rocked the engine. The only thing missing was the Philip Seymour Hoffman character of our crew who was on another fire handling logistical support.

Though his humor and entertainment value were missed, the fire excitement filled the air and drowned everything else out. Everyone kept turning to me and asking if I was excited. Not being the most excitable person I nodded, smiled, and took it all in rather quietly.

SEAT

SEAT

I looked out the window as we drove into a seemingly empty wilderness. We followed a winding dirt road past grazing cattle that looked up from their grass unamused and watched us go by. When we got to the fire, Air Attack was circling the fire and SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) were coming in to drop retardant around the fire’s edge. We watched them drop half a dozen loads, soaring in low right over our heads. It was like having our own private air show. After they were through we got the go-ahead to hit the fire. As we gingerly made our way down to the fire, the engine operator turned toward the boss and said, “I’m so excited I think I’ll have a chew.”

We drove down to the fire’s edge and started working the perimeter. It didn’t smell as bad as I thought it would and in fact, I was surprised how much it smelled like a large burning smudge, thanks in large part to the sage. It made me think that what we were doing was more like prayer than work, the four of us toiling in the thick, humid air seeking supplication as we walked through coals and bathed in smoke.

It didn’t take long for my clothes to become sweat-soaked from the heat, but the night was cool and the breeze offered a welcome reprieve when it hit my wet clothing. Occasionally I stopped and looked around at the blackened and smoldering vegetation and scanned the horizon  trying to commit the scene to memory. We only get one first after all.

I watched my boss up on the ridge holding his radio up into the air to catch a signal to give the fire size-up details to dispatch, at the engine operator pulling line, and at my partner working ahead of me. I scraped the burnt earth and vegetation, suffocating the ones that were burning or smoldering. It was hard work, but there’s a certain beauty in the simplicity of it all and a subtle catharsis overcame me as I worked.

The sky was as active as we were, moving and shifting in our periphery. Storm cells hovered all around us like giant jellyfish; virga and lightning stringing down from above. We were awash in a sea of storms and fire. Out toward the east a very active cell could be seen dropping lightning every few seconds. It was frightening and enchanting all at the same time. I wondered how long we would stay on the fire with that kind of cloud to ground lightning striking so close and so often and with such ferocity nearly on top of us.

My boss radioed dispatch to get the radar on the impending storm. Sure enough, it was heading due west and straight for us. I couldn’t stop watching it. The pink clouds lit up with golden light were shaped like a turbulent tidal wave building up to a breaking point, ready to crash down to earth; lightning frantically striking out of it every few seconds.

Between the fire smoldering on the ground and the fire falling out of the sky we were sandwiched in the shrinking space between heaven and earth. I bent low to snatch a photo of the last little flame flickering in the foreground of the looming storm before turning dirt over it. I looked back at the blackened, burnt ground behind me and when I turned back it came; a torrential rush of wind poured down out of the sky and hit me like a river. I wanted to let myself get swept away in the violent stream of cold air but something caught my eye.

Between heaven and earth

Between heaven and earth

I turned and looked behind me. What was dark just a moment before was suddenly aglow. Like a woman grazed by her lover’s touch, a hundred fires and embers lit up across the ground in response. All our work of putting the fire out was undone with the arrival of one dashing guest. It was as though the earth had awakened with his presence, glowing softly against the fading light of dusk, radiant and alive.

It was a wildland fairytale. As I stood there watching the earthen stars glittering across the ground, the wind mischievously whipping around me, I heard yelling. When I turned back toward the engine my boss was waving his arms and calling us in. We made our way toward the engine, put our tools away, and jumped in. And not a moment too soon as the storm descended on us in a blast of light, thunder, and rain. I looked back one last time at the wind dancing with the earth, and then it was gone, washed away in darkness.

As we crawled over the hills and headed back to camp my boss said, “It’s not often we get chased off a fire by lightning. In fact, in the 15 years I have been fighting fire I can only think of one time that has happened.” He stopped for a moment and glanced back at me, “And that was tonight.”

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Posted on July 13, 2015, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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